October 24, 2011

Facts About Friction: How To Blow An E-Commerce Opportunity

by Freddy J. Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango LLC + Guy Who Buys Too Much Stuff for His Cats

They had me at “meow.”
They lost me at “sign up.”

I was flipping through Facebook when it caught my eye — an ad featuring a cat lounging in some Jetsons-age contraption:

Cat Pod Facebook adSince I’m addicted to furry creatures with pointy ears and tuna breath, I was hooked. Since I also dig on futuristic design, particularly anything with the word “pod” in it, I clicked…

And that click constituted an act of extreme rarity.

The click-through rates on Facebook ads have plummeted to such abysmal lows, Facebook’s own head of measurement and insights is publicly disavowing them. Instead, he’s hyping the value of “awareness” and other metrics used by old-school media and previously ridiculed by new-media zealots. (For more on the new media flip-flop on metrics, see my post, “And The Standards Go Out The Browser Window: Banner Ad-Nauseum”).

So call CNN and issue a tweet: here was a Facebook user tearing himself away from his friends’ posts to actually click on an ad.

And just as quickly, I clicked away, pausing only long enough to capture the landing page so I could share it here:

Fab.com Cat Pod landing page

The ad took me to some site I’d never heard before, Fab.com, and there was the Cat Pod that had been promised. The problem? I couldn’t learn anything more about the Pod, or the website selling it, since the site is “by invitation only.” Really? They ran an ad on Facebook to take me to a members-only site?

Ah, but I could gain access: I just had to provide my email address first.

Podded Cat Meets Old Dog

Now, when it comes to these here Internets, I’m an old dog who knows some old tricks. Way back when most of us “information-superhighway” travelers had accounts on Prodigy, Earthlink, and AOL, I learned that if you give some stranger your email address, you’ll likely get back stuff you don’t really want. So these days, I give out my email address begrudgingly, even if it involves brands I know well. And I still get annoyed. I recently gave my email address to Groupon, and they responded by bombarding me with discounts on tanning sessions, teeth whitening and other offers I usually leave in my spam folder. At least I could trust Groupon to go away once I unsubscribed (which they did).

But who the hell is Fab.com? Would they be sharing my email address with Nigerian princes or the hucksters behind the “congratulations you’ve won an iPod” talking banner ads? Isn’t it customary to get to know someone, or enable them to know you, before asking for their email address?

So I bailed. I figured my cats could live without $79 pods. I’ll console them with some extra turkey and giblets instead.

And that is a classic example of “friction” in e-commerce.

No, not the turkey and giblets. Friction is anything that makes shopping more difficult for customers. That could be a long registration form, a dysfunctional search engine, or simply too many clicks to get to the products they want. In the bricks-and-mortar world, customers have to put up with some friction, such as essentials stashed in the back of the store, or mathematically illiterate shopping-cart stuffers in the “12 items or less” line. But on the Internet, friction lets prospective customers slip away. (Get it — “friction” and “slip away”?) Who needs hassle when there are hundreds of other sites that will happily take our money just a click away?

Now I understand any brand wanting to create an exclusive shopping experience. Stringing up that velvet rope, real or virtual, can make a business more enticing, since it keeps out the “riff-raff” and makes those admitted feel “special.” But before it can do that, the business must make sure people want it in the first place. You don’t want to put up a velvet rope and have no one but the bouncer waiting beside it. And creating that desire requires marketing:

You must let people know you exist and that you pack a whole lot of awesome before you ask them to jump through hoops.

Fab.com did neither of those things. Now, as far as I know, Fab.com could be an amazing company run by kitten-rescuing Buddhist nuns with immaculate manicures and masters degrees in legal ethics. But prior to spotting this Facebook ad, I had never heard of them before, and since I couldn’t peek inside their site, I had no idea what else they offered beyond the $79 Cat Pods. They just wanted my email address up front for something unknown that’s by invitation only.

Now, that measurement-and-insights dude at Facebook can talk all he wants about how his ads are best used to create impressions. Ironically, the Fab.com Facebook ad was successful in generating a click-through. It was the impression that was far less than impressive.

Update 3/4/14: Fab.com proved to be less than fabulous. The company burned through its $330 million in funding and ultimately sold for $15 million — and I would argue that’s even too much. Proof that money doesn’t make up for bad marketing.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

3 Responses

  1. You are absolutely correct. I too have noticed an increasing annoyance of “please register” or “complete our FREE membership” in order to simply browse a website.

    All websites want an ‘opt-in’ address for every person who visits their site — precisely for what you have experienced, relentless spam.

    It is truly annoying. Don’t fret though, your Feline Pods will be on Ebay momentarily I’m sure.

    Freddy’s Comment: Thanks for the comment, Rich. It’s crazy, isn’t it? Imagine if stores at the mall required that you give them your email address before you were allowed to enter. Nobody would accept that. Yet for some reason it’s becoming a common practice online.

  2. A great article! I liken what I call “closed-shop” websites, that sell products (or services) online, but fail to offer any live customer support presence or service – to shops and stores in a vast shopping mall that stretches for miles in every direction – with the products or services, the shop-owner offers, attractively displayed in the “windows” – but a closed shop door, bearing a sign that reads:
    “CLOSED – Indefinitely. Should you have a query, or wish to purchase one of our products (or make use of the service) on offer, simply phone: 000 000 000 during office hours. Email: abc@xyz.co, or Fax us on: 000 000 000. ”
    And look forward to the day, website owners realize how much (existing or potential) customers they could be losing, by expecting site visitors (and existing or potential customers) to do all the legwork, if they have a query or can’t find the product, etc., they are looking for, and will install a (free) live-chat client – create an employment opportunity and hire a virtual customer support consultant. Or, if necessary, man the live-chat facility themselves. And couldn’t agree more, regarding obligatory registration, and the (often) lengthy forms site-visitors are asked to complete.

  3. Good posting and one that almost all of us have experienced many times.

    The TV sitcom cliche, “if you’re going to ask me for sex..at least take me to dinner first” comes to mind here.

    I clicked on your ad..at least tease me a little more before trying to make your play.

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